Into the Woods Review: Show-stopping Streep-tacular


Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: James Lapine (book and screenplay)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick


Release date: January 8th, 2014

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 124 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The final 25 minutes.

Into the Woods, born from acclaimed composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1987 Tony Award-winning stage production, serves a specific purpose: making fun of everything you love. Despite the patronising satirical glow, his style allows theatre-goers, fantasy-epic aficionados etc. to laugh with his production and at genre art. Several years ago, fans of Sweeney Todd were treated to Tim Burton’s spirited remake starring white-faced Johnny Depp and soot-covered soundstages. So, does this one hit the high notes or fall to wailing lows?

Tinseltown’s latest Broadway-to-Blockbuster smash is up against this Oscar Season’s biggest hitters. Wholly separating itself from its WWII/manipulative biopic/satirical broadway/Hobbit-starring competition, Into the Woods flaunts its creative consultants, director, and starry cast’s better sides. Placed in the Awards-hungry musical/comedy slot, it compares favourably to every other recent musical-to-screen effort (Les Miserables, among others). This musical deconstructs significant Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In a small village, a wack-a-doo witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a cursed-to-never-conceive baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to obtain four items – a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – before the next blue moon. For varying – albeit well-known – reasons, scullery maid turned princess hopeful Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), peasant boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) also venture into the dreaded neighbouring woods.

The musical-to-movie switch is a long-standing Hollywood process. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) has dedicated himself to the art form. Even his songless flops, Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, reek of flamboyance and grand-scale camp. Marshall efficiently applies his vast skill-set to Into the Woods, delivering a extravagance-fuelled hit rivalling Chicago‘s overt magnetism. The filmmaker, applying a unheard-of rehearsal schedule here, protects the original material’s legacy while lathering his style across each frame. Indeed, Sondheim’s outside-the-box storytelling style and pin-point sense of humour shine throughout this slick adaptation. Appealing to cinema-goers and theatre buffs alike, it snappily pays homage to Sondheim’s enduring legacy. Author/playwright/screenwriter James Lapine valiantly trims his original ground-breaking material down to fit effortlessly. This adaptation aptly carries its own heaving weight throughout its first three quarters. Marshall and co. succinctly interweave all four fairy tales into the central plot-line. Indeed, this Avengers-style gathering of fairy tale favourites draws out that inner-child-esque nostalgic glow. Its balance between anachronistic satire and old-timey fantasy fluff will satisfy families and cinephiles this Oscar season. It’s darker elements – connotations alluding to pedophilia and adultery – are overshadowed by its winning formula.

“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” (Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), Into the Woods).

Sadly, Into the Woods‘ story topples over with the full force of a giant, a carriage, and Rapunzel’s heavenly locks combined. The original premise, depicting the meaningless of life post “happily ever after” for these fictional celebrities, is preserved haphazardly for the final 30 minutes. The finale, stretching this adaptation into a discomforting fourth act, throws unrefined resolutions and peculiar tonal switches into the otherwise hearty, designed-to-win potion. Eventually, the abundance of character arcs and story-lines sends it down the wrong path. Despite these near-crippling flaws, it’s an ample antidote to our recent slew of dark, dreary fairy-tale adaptations (Snow White & the Huntsman…ZZZZZ). It simply, and smartly, lets heroes be likeable and villains be despicable. However, the cynical twang elevates its forgettable array of musical numbers. The standout, oddly enough, involves a testosterone-fuelled feud between a Hollywood heartthrob and relative newcomer. The charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) engage in a hysterically homoerotic number (‘Agony’) comparable to Top Gun‘s volleyball scene. Sadly, despite the cast and crew’s immense talents, the surrounding numbers struggle to escape its shadow. Red and the Wolf(Johnny Depp)’s set-piece – ‘Hello, Little Girl’ – is a mild reprieve. Streep and Blunt, yet again, deliver astounding turns in leading roles. Despite their underutilised supporting characters, Tracy Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, and Christine Baranski make a strong case for more big-time female roles.

Into the Woods‘ true, uncompromising magic comes from a desire to please audiences rather than shock or repel them. In the midst of imitation games, unbroken actress turned directors, and Timothy Spall’s grunts, this smash hit transitions gorgeously from the Big Apple to the bright lights. Marshall, recovering from tedious recent efforts, wholeheartedly succeeds with this hilarious and arresting fantasy epic. Its journey-better-than-the-destination vibe, for better or worse, separates it from the ‘village’.

Verdict: A family-friendly and entertaining musical-satire.

Maps to the Stars Review – Hollyood Horror Story


Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Stars: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson


Release date: September 26th, 2014

Distributors: Entertainment One, Focus World

Countries: USA, Canada

Running time: 112 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Cronenberg’s direction.

Worst part: The dodgy CGI.

Certainly, the sunny labyrinth of Los Angeles – sheltered by the Hollywood sign and supported by the Walk of Fame – wields many sights worth exploring. Indeed, anyone living outside the City of Angels has an idea of what’s on offer. As the hub of commercial entertainment, us Westerners rely on Hollywood to keep us engaged and relaxed. However, those who live in or have visited the landmark town know its many filthy secrets. Every inch of LA, from Compton to Santa Monica to Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, is covered in a layer of scum. This is reflected in Tinseltown’s latest bout of self-deprecation, Maps to the Stars.

Julianne Moore & Mia Wasikowska.

With Maps to the Stars, a big-name director, commendable screenwriter, and several A-listers got together to kickstart the project. Despite the cast and crew’s immense buying power, this satirical-drama holds up on its own. Combating all forms of criticism, it’s difficult not to applaud the movie’s raw pride. This crime-thriller, taking on everything and everyone around it, breaks off into several valuable strands. Its narrative follows the Weiss family’s peculiar lifestyle. As one of (fictional) Hollywood’s most prestigious and ballsy families, the Weiss’ represent the archetypal Beverly Hills dynasty. The husband/father figure, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a gutsy self-help guru/psychotherapist making his fortune from TV appearances and manuals. Obsessed with book tours and reputations, Stafford turns away from chaos and despair. The wife/mother figure, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is her thirteen-year-old son’s manic-depressive manager. Suffocating her child with pills and diet plans, her fragile frame of mind threatens to hurriedly destroy everything in her radius. The aforementioned son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is a mega-successful sitcom star bouncing back from a recent stint in a drug rehabilitation program. At the worst time possible, the daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), leaves a Floridian sanatorium to reconnect with her family.

John Cusack & Evan Bird.

John Cusack & Evan Bird.

Why was Agatha situated so far away from her family? What happened to the family before we met them, exactly?  Why is she covered in horrific scars? I can’t tell anyone, as it would ruin Maps to the Stars‘ immense enjoyment factor. Inhaling The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty, and Mulholland Drive, the movie fuses self-reflexive humour with confronting drama-thriller tropes. From the first frame onwards, writer Bruce Wagner – apparently on a hell-bent mission to skewer Tinseltown left, right, and centre – outlines his viewpoints and ideologies for the audience. In doing so, Wagner – basing his screenplay on his experiences whilst comparing it to Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberte’ – allows us to shape our own analyses. Adding obvious titbits to each line, Wagner illuminates the puzzle pieces throughout. The narrative, pieced together in varying ways depending on one’s knowledge of the industry, comments on modern showbiz’s pros and cons. Examining Hollywood’s cynical business decisions and shallow inhabitants, the narrative evenly spreads itself over several intriguing plot-strands and character arcs. Despite the compelling   material, Maps to the Stars never establishes a lead character. Early on, Agatha worms her way into Beverly Hills through a friendship with limo driver/actor/writer Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson). Thanks to her Twitter-based attachment to Carrie Fisher, this bizarre character becomes ageing actress/sexual abuse victim Havana Segrand(Julianne Moore)’s “chore whore” (personal assistant). Havana longs for a remake of a feature originally starring her deceased mother (Sarah Gadon). This satirical-drama, giving its characters many physical, spiritual, and psychological afflictions, waits for its subjects to unravel like a faux-Gucci outfit.

“On the stairs of death I write your name, Liberty.” (Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), Maps to the Stars).

Robert Pattinson.

Robert Pattinson.

Flipping between plot-strands, this psychological-thriller relies on its severe, agenda-setting methodology. Despite Wagner’s piercing dialogue and searing commentary, credit belongs to renowned  Canadian director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly) for keeping everything under the surface. With each passing second, the master filmmaker supports Wagner’s argument by examining at his overwhelming viewpoints. Eclipsing his anti-establishment bottle flick Cosmopolis, Cronenberg hits a nerve most avoid like the plague. Like his 2012 limo-set drama, his cold, distant direction matches the agenda at every turn. Despite the tonal inconsistency, the filmmaker leaps between sub-plots with ease and determination. Sending shivers down the spine, his style amplifies the disgusting things our characters say and do. Learning from experience, his direction throws us normal folk into the chaos. His studio meetings, filmed entirely in medium close-ups, comes off like interrogations. Grappling with temptation, obsession, and greed, Cronenberg’s visual flourishes amplify the intensity. Amplified by Howard Shore’s piercing drum-lines and Peter Suschitzky’s mesmerising cinematography, the movie’s many climaxes and revelations hit like rejections. Unlike his more recent efforts (A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method), Cronenberg’s touch, like plastic surgery, rests on and under the surface. Tearing down egos and backstabbers, our talented performers capture a soap opera-like aura impeccably. Moore examines her searing role with gusto and vigour. Meddling with a despicable character (celebrating after a fellow actress drops out of a role due to tragic circumstances), she strips everything down to the bare essentials.

Within Hollywood’s bright lights, gorgeous landmarks, and raging parties, a disease – turning fame and fortune into despicable traits – seeks to destroy everything. Causing LA’s dirt-covered veneer, this scourge of reality TV and tabloid media has severely degraded the glamour. Despite the overbearing agenda, Maps to the Stars has the cojones to bludgen Hollywood with its own golden statuettes. Thanks to scintillating performances, pithy dialogue, and kinetic visuals, this satirical-drama is Cronenberg’s best effort since Eastern Promises.

Verdict: A compelling and confronting satirical-drama.

This is the End Review – The A-hole Apocalypse


Directors: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Stars: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Danny McBride


Release date: June 12th, 2013

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The A-List cast.

Worst part: The gross-out humour.

In the Hollywood Hills resides a bunch of actors who owe everything to writer/director/creator Judd Apatow. This group has spawned numerous big-budget comedies over the past few years – gaining fame and wealth in the process. However, according to horror-comedy and pet project This is the End, these A-list actors are just like us. Their new film is an ambitious yet messy disaster flick that isn’t afraid to place its actors in front of a mirror, and make them face up to what they have become.

Seth Rogen, James Franco & Jay Baruchel.

I’m, of course, talking about such comedic actors as Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel etc. These actors have worked tirelessly together since their hit TV series Freaks and Geeks. They’ve jumped from one project to another – delivering refreshing humour and enjoyable performances. However, they recently have become repetitive and tiresome. In This is the End, these actors/writers/producers/ directors/entrepreneurs admit to their mistakes and defend their greatest works. The movie begins with Jay Baruchel meeting up with his old buddy Seth Rogen. In this movie’s universe, People are so obsessed with Rogen they become hesitant to interact with Baruchel and leave him in the dust (I take it in this timeline no one saw The Sorcerer’s Apprentice either). Baruchel opposes the ridiculous ‘Hollywood’ lifestyle and Rogen’s audacious celebrity friends. To get Baruchel accustomed to Rogen’s larger than life buddies, Rogen brings him to a raging party at James Franco’s enviable new house. Soon after Baruchel becomes bored with the party, earthquakes obliterate streets, a sinkhole opens up in front of Franco’s house, and fires gloriously light up the Hollywood Hills. Stuck in Franco’s house, Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride must wait out the apocalypse.

Our ‘heroes’ plotting their way into heaven.

This self-reflexive and amusing disaster flick is about as subversive as it gets. Having seen many of 2013’s generic Hollywood comedies (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Movie 43The Hangover Part 3), It’s refreshing to see a farcical, star-studded movie that’s strange, original, and actually…funny. This clever experiment aims to peel back Hollywood’s slick, glossy layers to reveal the horrific sliminess of the rich and famous. Writer/directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, The Green Hornet) have created an honest and Meta cinematic vision. They push so many boundaries here whilst delivering what audiences want most from them. With this type of project, you either end up with an enthralling and stylish flick (Ocean’s 11), or some ungodly creation that comes off like a Holiday video inexplicably released in theatres around the globe (Grown Ups). Despite avoiding the cynicism and laziness of the aforementioned Adam Sandler romp, This is the End still comes off as a series of improvisational dialogue sequences and wacky, broadly comedic sketches. Certain scenes are hilariously creative when viewed separately from one another and judged on their own terms. Unfortunately, these random, disgusting, and occasionally hysterical moments don’t come together to create a cohesive and interesting narrative. Beyond the first 20 minutes, many scenes go on too long and a lot of jokes fall flat; missing punch lines and/or charm. However, the dialogue/improvised lines are, for the most part, top notch. This easily quotable movie proves just how talented these actors/writers/directors can be.

Michael Cera.

For a first directorial effort, Rogen and Goldberg have done a commendable job. However, it seems that everyone involved had much more fun making this movie than I had watching it. This movie exists solely to tear down some of Hollywood’s most popular people and iconic elements. References to each other’s movies come thick and fast while the celebrity cameos make for some of the movie’s best moments (hats off to Michael Cera). This ‘parody of Hollywood parodying itself’ has none of the verve or intricacies of the similarly subversive Tropic Thunder. With the immense talent on display, and the exhaustive number of apocalypse-based movies released this year, Rogen and Goldberg cleverly dissect the importance of fame, friendship, and the end of days. One of the movie’s many surreal twists and turns involves a discussion of why religion should be commended/respected. It’s brave of these comedic talents to be tackling a topic of this magnitude. It’s in these slower moments that the characters and ‘story’ develop beyond the assortment of dick, fart, weed, and rape jokes. Despite the movie’s outlandish tone, references to The Exorcist and Titanic inexplicably become some of the movie’s most beguiling moments. This warped/stoner version of 12 Angry Men needed a sense of style to separate it from such comedies as Pineapple Express (referenced gleefully throughout this movie). Except for a couple of establishing shots, we see little of the apocalyptic events. Also, several bright flourishes/montages distract from the movie’s Big Brother/The Real World style.

“James Franco didn’t suck any dicks last night? Now I know ya’ll are trippin’.” (Danny McBride (Danny McBride), This is the End).

It’s the rapture!

Obviously, This is the End is bolstered by its expansive cast. Essentially ‘The Expendables’ of modern comedy, this talented array of actors clearly enjoys playing up the public’s perception of ‘celebrity’. The actors’ limited range deems this cast perfect for this premise. Despite always playing ‘himself’, Rogen has an engaging screen presence. The conflict between him and Baruchel may be a familiar and unnecessary plot point, but there’s a significant amount of chemistry between the lead actors. Unfortunately, the movie is told from Baruchel’s perspective. It’s not that he’s a bland performer; it’s that he’s easily overshadowed by the more involving actors around him. Franco and Hill (both of whom Oscar nominated) are the movie’s stand out performers. Franco, known for his crazy ambitions and confusing personality traits, is making fun of his pretentious and manic persona. With many jokes directed towards his homoerotic friendship with Rogen, and the questionable art lying around his swanky house, his smirk-filled, charismatic turn creates many big laughs. Hill does a great job making fun of his ‘high horse’ persona (“Dear God, it’s me, Jonah Hill…from Moneyball”). Featuring an earring and inflated ego, Hill is in scene-stealing mode as this excessive character. Trying to make peace with Baruchel, his phoney attempts at niceties continually garner a huge laugh. McBride and Robinson provide many fun moments while Emma Watson pops her head in at the right time.

Despite its obvious flaws, This is the End has enough alluring aspects to warrant a trip to the movies with your buddies. With its ‘outside the box’ concepts and funny, self-reflexive gags, this crowd-pleasing movie does something many recent parodies/satires have failed to do: it says what we’re all thinking.

Verdict: A messy, over-long yet hilarious frat-boy disaster-comedy.

The Cabin in the Woods Review – Scintilating Slaughter-fest


Director: Drew Goddard

Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard

Stars: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins


Release date: April 13th, 2012

Distributor: Lionsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 95 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The clever references.

Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.

Despite its simple title, The Cabin in the Woods is far from your normal cliché ridden slasher flick, so far in fact that it questions the very genre itself. With a witty sense of humour and a strong thirst for blood and gore, this is one of the most influential horror films of the past decade.

Fran Kranz & Kristen Connolly.

Fran Kranz & Kristen Connolly.

The Cabin in the Woods sounds so simple that it must be a ruse. This trick is, of course, what five teenage friends discover during their stay in a small country shack. The inhabitants are met with various twists and turns as their sanity and loyalty will be tested to a great extent. These friends are (forcefully) based on five well known stereotypes of horror, picked off depending on their moral codes. There’s Curt ‘the jock’ (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), Jules ‘the slutty dumb blond’ (Anna Hutchinson), Marty ‘the stoner’ (Fran Kranz), Holden ‘the sensitive guy’ (Jesse Williams) and, most importantly, Dana ‘the virgin’ (Kristen Connolly).

Chris Hemsworth & Anna Hutchison.

Chris Hemsworth & Anna Hutchison.

Sadly shelved for four years due to economic problems with MGM, director Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) has created a visually thematic and referential ode to several great horror flicks and elements of decades past. The major secret of the film is based on a Truman Show/Death Race 2000 style discussion of the effect of modern reality TV within the public sphere. With the dialogue cleverly yet valuably speaking up about the dangers of using innocent lives as the subjects of sickening games, run by two charismatic industrial technicians Richard (an always convincing Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford), both the technicians’ and victims’ points of view are assuredly established. Instead of using the Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson Scream series method of simply pointing out clichés and influences, what makes The Cabin in the Woods the most ‘meta’ horror film in Hollywood existence is that it breaks down each individual horror symbol and trope and explains their true importance in pop. culture.

Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford.

Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford.

If there’s one problem with this 80s style gory yet unique horror spectacle it’s that, much like the equally stylish and culturally relevant ode to pop culture Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, its straight aim at the narrow hipster/cinephile target demographic may limit the film’s cultural reach. Despite this, this subversion of horror clichés, symbols and ideologies are what makes this modern slasher flick a must see. It’s derivative yet self-aware of its influences which have shaped the very fabric of Hollywood horror. What you expect from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly  creator Joss Whedon (also the writer/director of the recent blockbuster hit The Avengers) is in this deceptive and smart horror film. With a taste for satire and self-referential humour, Whedon’s writing style has once again created a stylish composition of different genre elements after his take on a revered superhero squad. Both Whedon and Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) have proven their value of being inside the fanboy state of mind. The film and TV creations of both directors have proven repeatedly that being popular and relevant can mean cleverly speaking up about the obvious elements of pop culture itself.

“Yeah, uh, I had to dismember that guy with a trowel. What have you been up to?” (Marty (Fran Kranz), The Cabin in the Woods).

Tim De Zarn.

Tim De Zarn.

Much like Whedon’s take on superheroes, vampires and space travelling adventurers, the visual style of Joss Whedon’s vision is second to none. The cabin, designed specifically to represent a visual reference to Sam Raimi’s ground-breaking Evil Dead films, is a simple yet strange labyrinth filled with ornaments and illusions from cults and tribal rituals past. This is a stark contrast to pristine hallways and command centres looking like a cross between J.J. Abram’s Star Trek and Tony Scott’s The Taking Of Pelham 123. Let’s not forget that this film holds the creatures of both historical fables and Hollywood cinema inspiring the film’s creation. All manner of blood thirsty ghosts, ghouls and goblins from the 1930’s Universal Studio’s Classic Monsters era, to George A. Romero zombie flicks, to, most importantly, the spirits risen from The Evil Dead (pun intended) are, literally, on display. This gleefully leads up to the 3rd act bone-chilling and disgustingly nostalgic blood-bath and vital cameo from one of classic sci-fi horror’s most important faces, which no creature that goes bump in the night should ever keep you from witnessing.

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, bolstering their already sterling reputations, tear the horror/cabin-thriller genre to shreds. Like the movie’s final third, Goddard’s style delivers constant surprises. Deserving of major critical and commercial acclaim, the movie says what we were all thinking.

Verdict: A deceptively simple sounding horror flick with Joss Whedon’s hands all over it.